Chinese money launderers and fentanyl-makers have gone into business with Mexican drug cartels, teaming up to make billions of dollars a year trafficking the powerful opioid that is killing thousands of people in the United States.
The fentanyl boom facilitated by China represents a third wave of the opioid epidemic, following first an increase in the abuse of prescription painkillers around the turn of the century and then a rise in heroin use. But the fentanyl phase is different in that it involves an international operation of people in multiple countries working together to produce and transport the drugs and then secretly shuttle the profits across U.S. borders.
“It’s the greatest drug scourge in American history — more Americans killed annually than any time in history, and so, yeah, this is a problem of epic proportions,” said Ben Westhoff, author of Fentanyl, Inc.
Authorities have long been aware that China and Mexico have teamed up to produce and profit in this endeavor, but in recent years, Chinese businesses have stepped up not to only facilitate the making of fentanyl but also the laundering of profits out of the U.S.
Recognizing that fentanyl was becoming the new face of the opioid epidemic, the Trump administration pressured Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019 to make the drug illegal. In response, labs in Wuhan, China, that make most of the fentanyl consumed in the U.S. pivoted to produce instead the precursor ingredients that were themselves not illegal.
“People in labs in China are producing this substance that is killing Americans,” former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a 2018 interview, long before the global emergence of the coronavirus, which also was first detected in Wuhan.
The fentanyl ingredients are sent to Mexico, where the final product is made.